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New CHP Chief Sounds Familiar Message

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By Mike Taylor

Driving the roads of Calaveras County is nothing new for Lt. Jerry Pelfanio of the California Highway Patrol.

After all, he was patrolling the county roads and highways in the year 2000 as a sergeant.

Pelfanio took over as the commander of the San Andreas Unit of the CHP this year, replacing Lt. Les Quinn, who retired at the end of 2004.

Pelfanio has been a CHP officer for 21 years. He said he has worked all over the valley in cities like Los Banos and Stockton and even patrolled the streets and highways for a time in Redwood City.

He was stationed as a sergeant here at the San Andreas Unit for only about a year in 2000, then was transferred to Sacramento as an administrative sergeant.

Before attending the CHP Academy in West Sacramento, Pelfanio said he drove a truck for the Raley´s supermarket chain.

“At age 24 I thought I´d be good at it and I wanted to give it a try,” he said when asked why he joined the CHP. “You´re never doing the same thing twice, it´s different and diverse.

“Every day you´re out there meeting someone,” Pelfanio said. He also appreciates the camaraderie between CHP officers. “I have friends all over the state.”

He admitted there are times when officers come upon horrific accident scenes and someone has perished, but he said generally the crash has already happened and all that´s left is “to make things easier on those who are left.”

Calaveras County had 20 fatal crashes on roadways here last year and Pelfanio said that´s too many.

“The death rate went through the roof,” he said Monday.

But the fatalities are hard to stop because the wrecks have happened all over the county, he said. “There´s not one stretch of road where we need to target.”

He acknowledged the CHP put extra officers on patrol, but that didn´t stop the carnage. Even county drivers´ exemplary 98-percent seatbelt usage rate couldn´t stop them from dying on the road.

“We´ve got to get people to slow down,” Pelfanio said. He added that a motorist who has a “momentary lapse” on a straight, valley thoroughfare may hit a few roadway reflectors and get startled back to attention, “but up here, in a curve, you´re off the edge.”

He admitted that tougher enforcement of the speed limit might help and said he hopes to work to get the “slow down” message to high school drivers.

Pelfanio also said drivers have to stop allowing their vehicles to drift off the pavement, and if motorists do find themselves in that situation, they should temper their reactions.

“People panic, it´s natural,” he said.

He suggested drivers think about what happens when driving on gravel and a vehicle´s brakes are applied. “The car keeps going in the same direction.”

If a car is traveling at 55-mph along a highway and the tires drop off the pavement, Pelfanio said the driver shouldn´t necessarily slam on the brakes and yank the steering wheel to the left. Rather, the driver should carefully steer the car back onto the road.

Pelfanio and his wife, Lydia, will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary this year. The couple met in high school. She works as an analyst for the CHP in the personnel department in West Sacramento. They have two daughters, Kathryn, 9, and Rachael, 18, who attends classes at Sacramento City College majoring in drama.

“She´s done a lot with the Sacramento Theatre Co.,” Pelfanio said. He said watching Rachael perform onstage is amazing. “I can´t believe that´s my kid up there. She´s good.”

Pelfanio said he´s an avid handball player who belongs to an association near the family home in Elk Grove.

When he´s not patrolling the state´s highways and byways, Pelfanio likes to drive on them aboard his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Last year, he and Lydia took a leisurely trip to Mammoth, through Yosemite National Park, then returned over the Sonora Pass. His dream bike trip would be to climb on the Harley after retirement and “take off and go and see where I end up.”

Pelfanio is also a history buff and said he´d like to tour the South.

“My wife would have a hard time,” he said smiling. “I´m the one who reads all the (roadside) plaques.”

That stopping to look around is something Pelfanio thinks everyone should take more time to do.

“We don´t take the time to see things.”

Contact Mike Taylor at


Lt. Jerry Pelfanio

Born: Sacramento

Parents: Richard and Anne Pelfanio

Siblings: Two sisters and one brother

High school: Valley High

College: Cosumnes River College and some classes at California State University, Sacramento.

First job: Pro shop worker at Valley High Country Club.

Wife: Lydia

Children: Rachael, 18 and Kathryn, 9.

Favorite thing about Calaveras County: “The scenery; it´s a beautiful county.”

Reprinted with permission from the Calaveras Enterprise